NDJAMENA, May 3 (Reuters) Voters in Chad trickled to the polls today in a one-sided election expected to keep President Idriss Deby in power, despite an opposition boycott and a rebel threat of violence.
Deby, an ex-army chief who seized control of the former French colony in 1990 and won elections in 1996 and 2001, is seen winning a third five-year term because he faces no serious challenge from four contenders who are mostly government allies.
His supporters present him as a guarantor of stability against the spillover of conflict from the violence-torn Darfur region of neighbouring Sudan. Deby accuses the Sudanese government of trying to overthrow him.
But critics say his nearly 16-year rule has become increasingly corrupt and dictatorial in the landlocked central African state.
Polls opened at 0700 local 1130 Hrs IST but there was only a trickle of early voters at makeshift polling stations set up under trees on the dusty pavements of capital N'Djamena.
Most consisted of little more than a table, benches, a plastic urn and a sheet hung from a tree for a voting booth. Security appeared to be light, although soldiers and government officials were among the first to vote.
''We want peace and development for the country,'' said Zakaria Mary Mahamat Hassan, a 21-year-old student voting in the central neighbourhood Djambal Barh.
''You shouldn't do things by the gun, you should use the ballot box,'' Mahamat Hassan said, adding he had voted for the president.
He criticised the opposition boycott and the rebel threat to disrupt the polls.
ARMY ON ALERT Deby's army is on alert to thwart any threat from rebels who raced in pickup trucks from the eastern border with Sudan almost three weeks ago to raid N'Djamena, in the country's far west.
Fearing a fresh attack, some residents of the capital have taken refuge across the river in nearby Cameroon in recent days.
The April 13 attack on N'Djamena was defeated by government troops helped by intelligence passed on by a 1,200-strong French military contingent stationed in Chad.
French Mirage jets, which fired a warning shot at one rebel column, fly daily reconnaissance missions over the arid country twice the size of France.
''This is an election being held under French protection --have you heard the jets? It's a complete farce,'' said Ngarledjy Yorongar, an opponent of Deby, whose Action for the Republic Federation is joining 15 other opposition parties in an election boycott.
Government ministers call the boycott ''anti-democratic'' and say the rebel attempts to seize power by force are a recipe for further chaos and bloodshed in a country plagued by ethnic conflict and civil war since its independence in 1960.
''It's them (the opposition) who will be electing Deby by refusing to take part in the elections,'' Foreign Minister Ahmat Allam-Mi told Reuters.
The ruggedness of the country -- which includes wind-blasted mountains and deserts and dry, brush-covered savannah -- also makes holding an election a logistical challenge.
Many of the 5.8 million voters will have to walk several kilometres (miles) to cast their ballots and officials say official results may take several days to be released.
Although Chad became an oil producer in 2003, it remains one of Africa's poorest and most corrupt countries. Most of its 10 million inhabitants live in squalid towns and villages with scarce water and power, and only rudimentary health and education facilities.
REUTERS CH VV1324